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Victory and denial as ACLU fights Fla. schools over gay-straight alliances

Wednesday, May 1, 2013
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OCALA, Fla. — The American Civil Liberties Union said it is suing one Florida school district for denying students to form a gay-straight alliance, while another district relents and now says it will allow a similar club at a nearby high school.

The ACLU said Wednesday it has filed the lawsuit against the School Board of Lake County, Fla., Wednesday in federal court in Ocala, claiming its delay in allowing the formation of a gay-straight alliance club at a middle school is a violation of free speech and equal access.

The lawsuit says the efforts by eighth-grader Bayli Silbertstein to form a student club at Carver Middle School for gay students and their straight allies has been repeatedly delayed by the school board.

The lawsuit says that the board’s failure to give her a definitive answer on whether the club can be formed is tantamount to a denial and that denial violates the U.S. Constitution.

A school board spokesman didn’t immediately return a phone call.

Meanwhile, a group of students at Kathleen High School in nearby Lakeland, Fla., were informed that, after months of delay, officials at the Polk County School District will allow them to establish a gay-straight alliance student club at the school, after students reached out to the ACLU of Florida for assistance.

Rory Teal and Brenna Pelland, two 17-year-old 11th graders at Kathleen High School had been working for months to establish the GSA in order to confront bullying and promote tolerance for LGBT students at Kathleen High School, having first contacted administrators about the club in November 2012. The students claimed their request was repeatedly put off.

The students contacted the ACLU of Florida, who sent a letter to Polk County School Board Superintendent Dr. John A. Stewart regarding the importance of GSAs in creating a safe and welcoming learning environment for students and the school’s legal obligation to allow the club to form.

A week later, in a meeting after school on Friday, April 26, Teal and Pelland were informed by the Kathleen High School principal that the GSA would be allowed to meet.

“We are really excited that the GSA is going to be allowed to start creating a safe space where students can be themselves,” stated Pelland. “We want our school to be a place where people are respected for who they are, and the GSA is going to help a lot with that.”

“The bullying situation made focusing on academics really hard for a lot of people,” stated Teal. “We’re glad we don’t have to wait until next year for the club to help students feel comfortable at school.”

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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